There’s No Accounting for Character Education

Categories // General

Marvin W. Berkowitz

There are two faces to the academic accountability phenomenon.  On the one hand there is the reductionist perversion of education that is often referred to as high stakes testing.  You know, the governmental requirements to evaluate schools based on some narrow and questionable metrics, usually statewide academic test scores, coupled with little of the carrot and lots of the stick.

   This regrettable American export is permeating education around the globe.  I was recently in Hong Kong and met with the Minster of Education, who was lamenting the impact of high stakes testing pressures, and was under the assumption that this oppressive phenomenon was somehow unique to Hong Kong or at least worse there than elsewhere. I assured him it was a global epidemic, as I find it almost everywhere I go.  We have effectively reduced education to a race to cram as many factoids into the brains of children as possible and to do so selectively so they are maximally likely to be answers on “the test.”  Educators are frantic, administrators are oppressive, and children are demoralized and anxious victims of a distorted educational philosophy.

                But there is another side to this accountability movement.  Accountability is not inherently a bad thing.  High stakes narrow testing with punitive consequences is.  But accountability is not an all or none phenomenon.  My friend and colleague Avis Glaze told me that when she was CEO of Literacy and Numeracy for the Ontario Ministry of Education, they attained international recognition for educational effectiveness and excellence by using the tests differently.  They had standardized testing of academics, but the consequences were different.  If a school was found to be struggling, instead of punishing them by taking away resources (effectively dooming them to a downward spiral of failure), they actually provided resources strategically to support the unique needs of the struggling schools.  And instead of treating the staff of struggling schools as failures and pariahs, they relied on the teachers and principals to help with understanding what the schools needed to bring about improvement.  Undergirding this strategy was a trust in the professionalism of the staff and a belief that those closest to children must have input into making critical decisions.  If such resources were inadequate or they failed to leverage them effectively, then the Ministry would send in student achievement officers to work collaboratively with the staff to identify and provide what was required to support acceptable academic success.  If your child were failing math, would you take away his or her math books or tutor as a punishment for failure?  No you would find more resources to try to help him or her succeed at math, and hopefully work with him or her to collaboratively problem-solve a solution. Makes great sense.  And there are lots of other ways to do accountability intelligently and productively.

                Think of it this way.  Accountability says, in essence, that we should do three things.  First, we need to very clearly articulate what it is that we are trying to accomplish.  For example, if we are aiming to increase literacy, what specific literacy knowledge and/or competencies are we aiming for in a particular target group, such as eight year-old students or high school seniors?  This needs to be specific, accurate and appropriate.  Second, we need to use methods that research and theory support as effective ways to achieve those very specific fine-grained outcome goals. We need to use what works.  To do that, of course, we need to know what works, and this demands good research and the transfer of research findings to educational practice and practitioners.  Third, and this is where too much of the emphasis went and went in the wrong way, we need valid ways of assessing whether our methods are producing the desired outcomes.  This requires measurement science be applied in appropriate ways.

                So what does all this discussion of academic accountability have to do with character education?  Sadly, almost nothing.  So far.  Education all around the world has embraced, willingly or unwillingly, productively or destructively, the academic accountability framework.  It is not uncommon for educators to work from fine-grained outcome goals, to seek and apply research-based methods aligned with their goals, and, at least attempt to, assess if they are achieving those outcomes.  Not in the character education world.  Most character education suffers from one or more of the following breakdowns in this accountability framework.  First, outcomes are non-existent, too general, or not clearly defined.  Schools usually have a list of outcomes (often character strengths, values, virtues, and/or competencies) but they adorn walls without adequate definition and/or behavioral anchoring.  Even less common are developmental considerations.  What does responsibility look like for a 5 year old versus an 11 year old versus a 17 year old? 

                Then even when schools do an adequate job of identifying and elaborating character education outcome goals, they typically fail at identifying, or even looking for, evidence-based methods linked specifically to their identified outcome goals.  I struggle with my doctoral students who repeatedly fail to craft an effective, clear, and meaningful logic model linking outcomes with methods and assessments.  And the over 800 school leaders who have gone through my Leadership Academy in Character Education, when asked to craft an assessment plan for character education, almost universally fail to adequately identify and define outcomes, link them to implementation strategies, and choose helpful means of assessment.  Schools and districts need to do the same thing.  One high school principal, well trained in character education and a graduate of my Leadership Academy in Character Education, enthusiastically told me he wanted me to know about his new wonderful character education initiative.  First, he told me that he created it because they had caught a group of his students cheating on tests.  The staff had begun to research cheating and were stunned to learn how prevalent it is in both high school and post-secondary education.  Then he proudly proclaimed his resulting new character education approach…”service learning!”  He went on to describe a very intelligent and sophisticated implementation approach, including whole school adoption, integration into all academic subjects, high quality sustained professional development, etc.  When he was done, I said, “Service learning is a great and evidence-based method for both academic and character goals, and you are doing it brilliantly.  But I have one question for you…What on earth does character education have to do with academic integrity?”  He was stunned.  He had never thought about aligning the method with the outcome.  Can you imagine trying to improve reading comprehension scores by giving students math manipulatives?  Or treating a migraine with a tourniquet?  We would never do that in academic achievement (or medicine), but we do it frequently in character education.  Educators tend to have hearts of gold, and truly want what is best for kids, but they rarely have adequate insight into what is best for fostering the development of character.

                Finally, whether or not educators define their character outcome goals well and/or identify and implement evidence-based methods that align with those outcome goals, they still frequently try to assess the effectiveness of their character education initiatives.  If you are a character educator, you will no doubt recognize the “big 3” of most such character education assessment plans: attendance, academic achievement, and office referrals.  Not only are these tangential approximations of character, they are likely unrelated or distally related to the school’s goals.  Take for example the five most common outcome goals: respect, responsibility, honesty, fairness, caring.  How does attendance measure any of these?  OK, it may shed some light on responsibility, but what does it have to do with honesty or caring?  And how do academic scores assess respect for or caring about others?  And is the best measure of virtue or character the absence of undesirable behaviors that lead to office referrals?  And even if you want to set the assessment bar that low, do you bother to disaggregate your behavioral data and align them with your outcomes, and how consistent and reliable are your records of office referrals?

                In other words, we have failed at applying the promises of accountability to character development and character education.  We need to learn the positive lessons of the accountability movement and apply them to character education.  We need to clearly define our outcome goals in a developmental and fine-grained way.  We need to identify and apply evidence-based methods aligned with those outcome goals.  And we need to use assessment methods that are valid and aligned specifically with those same outcome goals.  It wouldn’t hurt to also assess the fidelity of our implementation to see if we really are implementing as fully and effectively as we intend to, but that is a topic for another day.

                For if we don’t, there is no accounting for character education.


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